In an awkward year for Hindi-language releases, there have clearly been more good individual performances than films. I’d be hard-pressed to find five great movies; fortunately, I can’t say the same for its theatrical occupants. Actors have shone through even in some fairly average fare, making 2016 feel like a star-studded cricket team holding more individual records than tournament trophies.
Irrespective of the end products, this has also been a rare year in which all the three superstar Khans, perhaps propelled by the wave of new talent invading their kingdoms, have challenged themselves differently: one ambitious double-role (Fan) and two tough wrestling dramas (Sultan, Dangal). They don’t make this list, but it’s encouraging to see them put in the hard yards – and not just physically – late into their careers.
Without condemning you to further smug cricket metaphors, here are my top 10 lead performances in the year’s Hindi films.
- Fatima Sana Shaikh (Dangal)
It’s not so much her emotional range as it is the intense physicality she brings to the table, as wrestler Geeta Kumari Phogat. It’s usually easy to dismiss conventionally attractive ‘heroine’ faces in earthy, demanding roles. But Ms. Sheikh feels the part of an athlete; she looks trained, focused, conflicted, young and hungry.
Especially in the aftermath of many technical and extensive wrestling scenes, she develops the sweaty gaze of someone who has woken up for a run at 5 AM all her life. The kind of commitment is crucial in context of a film – and a sport – that pivots on the strength of single-minded discipline.
- Sonam Kapoor (Neerja)
I’ll be the first to admit I never thought I’d be compiling a best-of year-ender list with this name featuring prominently on it. Snobbish predispositions aside, I’ll also admit I don’t expect to see, ever again, fates contrive, stars align, horoscopes level and destinies collide perfectly enough to hand Sonam Kapoor the one role she was born to master.
That’s not to say she is naturally as annoyingly cheery and rehearsed as a professional airhostess. On the contrary, through her limitations, she lends slain Pan-Am purser Neerja Bhanot the kind of young dignity and naïve impulsiveness only a film star without the reputation of being an “actress” could have. The last time I mentally labeled a surprise performance a ‘flash in the pan’ (Kangana Ranaut in Queen), she went on to do Tanu Weds Manu Returns. I’ve learned my lesson.
- Nawazuddin Siddiqui (Raman Raghav 2.0)
Mr. Siddiqui chuckled, snarled, glared and brutalized Mumbai streets in Anurag Kashyap’s wicked serial-killer thriller with the unpredictability and hypnotic verve of a Pakistani cricket team going about an improbable fourth-innings chase. Though equipped with a cinematic self-awareness of his own psychological disorder, the actor carves out a sick, depraved and memorable monster – without even being the baddest guy in the film.
The long-drawn sequence in which he visits his sister’s (Amruta Subhash) flat uninvited and “makes himself comfortable” will go down as an atmospheric master-class in tension-building. It’s only mildly disturbing that I’m gleefully waiting to feel that fear again.
- Swara Bhaskar (Nil Battey Sannata)
Ashwini Iyer Tiwari’s bittersweet crowd pleaser, on some strange wavelength, can be construed as a lower-middleclass homegrown Gilmore Girls. As the young, single Agra-based mother struggling to walk the precocious line between wink-wink sibling and tut-tut parent, Ms. Bhaskar notches up an underdog for the ages.
A jittery housemaid closer in age and maturity to her 14-year-old daughter (Riya Shukla) than any man she has been with, she rises above the film’s narrative inconsistencies. From initially wanting to lend her a helping hand and a strong shoulder, by the end we start hoping to internalize her doughty, resilient spirit.
- Manoj Bajpayee (Aligarh)
In arguably the finest performance of a career rebirthed in 2016, as Aligarh’s embattled Professor Ramchandra Siras, Mr. Bajpayee loves, loses, rages, breaks, trusts, poeticizes, heals and withers his way into our heavy hearts. The ultimate eye-in-the-storm portrayal, he is the tortured soul of Hansal Mehta’s based-on-true-events film about an estranged academic prosecuted for his sexual orientation.
The camera stays on his ageing face repeatedly, with his glassy, lonely eyes speaking far more than his mouth ever does. A truly restrained rendition, this, of a persona that could easily have succumbed to factory-setting Bollywood-isation.
- Alia Bhatt (Udta Punjab, Dear Zindagi)
In each of her three films this year (including Kapoor & Sons), Ms. Bhatt has played sad-eyed unsheltered girls that become reluctant victims of their own independence. She breaks down on screen like nobody else – whether as a brutally abused Bihari immigrant aching for the intimacy of a tender kiss, or as a complicated overachiever confronting the burden of her crippling abandonment issues.
While it’s easy to dismiss her penchant for roles of identical dimensions (an unfair criticism hurled at Ranbir Kapoor, too), one must remember that there is nobody – especially within the mainstream space – as consistently representative of this generation’s existential intonations.
- Siddhant Behl (Jugni)
Shefali Bhushan’s Jugni, a remarkably perceptive story about music and love, may have gotten a bit lost in the mainstream January crowd. But even as I watched the film, I was convinced that very few performances in the coming year would top that of Siddhant Behl’s. As Mastana, a freewheeling rural Punjabi folk singer torn between feelings for the urban-yuppie music producer (Sugandha Garg) who discovers him and his own evolving B-town ambitions, Mr. Behl showcases a theatrical range befitting his Delhi-stage roots.
Hard to believe he isn’t a real musician. The title (literal translation: female firefly) suggests a contemporary gender-conscious coming-of-age tale, but it quite literally becomes his show. I hope more filmmakers – he only appeared in the web-series, Txydrmy, after Jugni – wake up to his presence.
- Salim Diwan (Bollywood Diaries)
Another lesser-known aspiration-based film with a superb soundtrack, Bollywood Diaries went largely unnoticed, but boasted of perhaps the year’s most affecting and heart-on-sleeve performance. Amidst pedigreed veterans like Ashish Vidyarthi and indie favourites like Vineet Kumar and Raima Sen, it’s easy to be wary about newcomer Salim Diwan, a prominent Rajasthani businessman, being the film’s producer too.
But as the dangerously deluded call-center employee who becomes a reality show’s TRP darling, Mr. Diwan’s searing turn lays bare the challenges of an actor “playing” a bad actor. His kohl-stained eyes are heartbreaking, needy, angry, unhinged and overly passionate – a poignant portrait of the many tragic tinsel-town strugglers who can’t take no for an answer.
- Kalki Koechlin (Waiting)
Easily the Hindi film industry’s most improved actress, Ms. Koechlin has decoded the art of choosing roles most worthy of her versatile lineage. In Anu Menon’s Waiting, we’re meant to gradually sense – and not see – the exact moment her young-wife character goes from manic-pixie to mourning-fairy.
As a (wo)man-child jolted into adulthood by the sterile shadows of hospital corridors and half-memories, she gives grief a most fragile and relatable millennial face. There are a lot of little nuances I can go on writing about, as I could have with her Margarita, with a Straw turn too, but a deeper exploration merits a separate profile piece.
- Radhika Apte (Phobia)
Horror of horrors – the year’s topper: Radhika Apte’s phenomenally disorienting, tremblingly chaotic “genre” performance in Pawan Kripalani’s Phobia. It’s rare enough to have a watchable, cleverly crafted Hindi-language psychological thriller.
But to have its omnipresent actress deliver an act transcending its space (no pun intended – given she’s a traumatized agoraphobic patient, on the lines of Sigourney Weaver’s cooped-up Copycat character) is rarer than, say, the director of the awful Ragini MMS unleashing his uncompromised spook-fest potential upon us through this hallucinatory, trope-hugging solo-location flick. Who said horror movies aren’t about the acting?
Randeep Hooda (Laal Rang), Shahid Kapoor (Udta Punjab), Ranbir Kapoor (Ae Dil Hai Mushkil), Amitabh Bachchan (Pink), Pankaj Tripathi (Nil Battey Sannata)